Seeing the Quality of Light

The impact of your picture is dependent on the ‘quality’ of the light that makes it. Your picture will bomb if the light does not support the vision you are trying to achieve. Capture the light that defines the moment with greater impact and your picture will make its point to the viewer.

Study light variations on a hillside - a great way to see the quality of light

Study light variations on a hillside - a great way to see the quality of light

The quality of light is relative. It is only of good quality if the light is complementary to the point of the picture. There is a relationship between all the elements in the picture – the location, the content, the story… just about everything that comprises the picture. To make the picture work, with the right kind of light, the photographer has to ensure a sympathetic relationship between the light and the point of the picture. The best quality light establishes that sympathy and emphasises it.

How do you recognise the right kind of light for your picture? It is all about being sensitive to different types of light, different colours of light, different strengths of light? That’s easy stuff right? No, not necessarily. It takes a little time and effort to see light in a variety of its moods. ‘Seeing the light’ became a bit of a crusade for me when I realised that my photos were lacking a certain something – I was not really clear what exactly that ‘something’ was – but it was to do with light. After a little reading I realised that light had special qualities according to a whole range of factors at the moment of the shot. Following advice in photography books to take sunrise and sunset shots helped. The long shadows defined the landscape; the colours were powerfully different to the same shot in the harsher light of the middle of the day.

After being sensitised to the ‘special’ light at the beginning and end of the day I began to look for other special light situations.

Some of the most obvious light lessons are to be learned in open landscapes. On a grey overcast day diffused light makes the colours drab and variations in the landscape seem flat. But one bright beam of light on a hillside brings a whole new perspective. The bright, yellow light, contrasted with the diffused grey light identifies the differences that are not clear at other times. Look at the quality of the two lights side by side. Look for the difference in colour. Fathom the depth given by the more direct light as it casts shadows. See the contrasts in the colours as they have different brightness.

One of my favorite places for seeing the light is on emerging from a forested shadowy dell. As you come out of the shadow of the forest the light changes perceptibly. Look at the colour, strength and diffusion of the light, both in the shadow and out of it. The foliage you see is almost different on the same tree. Your eyes, accustomed to the shadow, sees the brighter light in a way different to what you saw on entering the shadows under the trees.

In the urban landscape, especially in a city of sky scrapers, light often has a fantastical quality. Most people don’t seem to see it. I didn’t see it myself. Try looking at the differences between buildings along a line created by a shadow of one building falling on another. Darker light and brighter light appear in sharp contrast. The trail of the shadow, particularly on a bright day will show you the quality of the light in that moment. Now, wait for a different day and different light. Visit the same shadow-line regularly at the same time of day. You will see a new and strong quality in the light. Try snapping that one shadow line in different lights at the same time of day. You will begin to see that the light there is dynamic, changeable – perhaps measurably different and definitely qualitatively different.

Learning to ‘see the light’ is about becoming sensitive to differences in light all the time, all around you. The type of light – hard; diffused, soft, coloured, bright, dark, grey, whatever – radically changes the picture you envision. In fact, once you sensitise yourself to light and its fantastic range of moods you will see it’s variation in everything. Once you see this variation in the quality and mood of light you can begin to look for that quality light that will increase the impact of your shots.

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